Mold Making and Casting

I joined the Mold Making class with the Central Oregon Makers last week.  Before going, I had no idea how to make a mold or what I might use it for.  Although 3D printing (“additive manufacturing”) gets most of the attention, mold making and casting seem like useful and versatile tools for duplicating and fabricating items.  I could see using this technique to repair or replace small latches, wheels, key caps, housings, and decorative features where an original is available.  For example, I’ve had trouble finding robot wheels I like, but now I can make my own.

It’s nice to have another tool in my toolbox, and I expect to invent problems just to use this tool.


Play-i is an interesting start-up using robotics to teach programming concepts to children as young as 5 years old.  From the company’s marketing material, here’s the vision:

“In starting Play-i, we set out to create the product we want our children to have. Our mission to make computer programming accessible for every child is bigger than we are.

We need to re-think education. Students are becoming great at retaining facts, but there’s not enough focus on teaching them how to think. We are preparing our children… and your children for the future by inspiring curiosity and igniting a love for learning.”

Details on their system are a bit scarce, but I find their effort fascinating because:

  1. Play-i is designed for young children.  Most commercial robots, even those advertised for education, are unsuitable for younger children.  The robots require assembly, are relatively fragile, and have exposed electronics.  Of course, older or more experienced folks might prefer these things, but the system seems to have sufficient capabilities for both beginner and more advanced learning.
  2. Programming is hands-on and eye-level.  Many other robots require a desktop computer, cables, and software installation.  In contrast, Play-i promises programming with a tablet while sitting on the floor next to the robot.  Hopefully, this system will provide immediate feedback, gratification, and interaction.  The robot will support several programming languages, which should allow the robot to grow and teach a wide variety of skills and ages.  I think the success of the robot will depend on the supporting software, programming interfaces, and curriculum.
  3. The robots have “personalities” and names.  The stories, colors, and shapes associated the robots seem to build an emotional relationship between humans and their robot pets, and I suspect that children will find this anthropomorphism appealing.

I do have some concerns but none ought to block their goals.  Specifically, the hardware is closed and lacks a supported way to “hack the hardware.”  There is an interface for add-ons, but the add-ons appear to be cosmetic or mechanical like an arm, handle, or cape.  I think the closed hardware design is necessary for young children but might limit some types of exploration.

Play-i does promise a developer API, which will likely be key to building a rich, capable software infrastructure and curriculum around the physical robot.  The robot appears to offer quite a bit of capability and flexibility with multiple programming interfaces, options for customization, a decent set of sensors, and a decent set of actuators.

At the moment, Play-i is raising funds with pre-orders for a production run in Summer 2014.  I look forward to seeing their “delightful robots” on my floor.

Living Computer Museum

The Living Computer Museum opened October 2012 in Seattle, WA.  Unlike most museums that strive to preserve artifacts how they find them, usually broken and powered off, this museum keeps their machines alive.  They’re in working condition, complete with the strangely beautiful sounds of teletypes, Disk ][ drives, paper tape, and raised-floor cooling.  The museum is the vision of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.  Allen cut his teeth on PDP minicomputers, and the museum’s collection reflects this but has a growing display of personal computers.  I know little about the PDP series and vintage of machine, but I found the museum irresistibly fascinating and essential for everybody interested in computers.

I visited the museum last year shortly after its opening, and you may read my full report in Juiced.GS (Volume 17, Issue 4).  And, yes, I should’ve posted this a year ago, but I somehow left the post as a draft … in my defense, it’s only a single-bit memory error.

Talkin’ about LocalTalk

A+ May 1998

A+ May 1998

Compared to today, computer networking in 1984 was heterogeneous, and compatibility between two systems from different vendors was unlikely.  Every vendor developed their own proprietary and incompatible solution to networking, including file sharing and print sharing.  Apple joined the foray with AppleTalk, a low cost and easy to operate networking system, with an announcement in 1984 and a release in 1985.  Initially, AppleTalk supported the Macintosh.  Soon, the Apple IIgs and the Apple Workstation Card brought AppleTalk to the Apple II line.  AppleTalk remained Apple’s answer to networking for about 10 years, and support for parts of AppleTalk persisted in OSX until 2009.

I presented an introduction to AppleTalk and the related LocalTalk link layer at KansasFest, and you may download my presentation here.

High-Low Tech

One of the advantages of traveling is finding the “best of the best” and not being restricted to one city.  Of course, it’s never easy finding the best stuff and having it match my travel schedule.  Yesterday, I attended the “Drawing the Electric Synth with Sam Jacoby from MIT” class at SparkFun Electronics in Boulder, CO.  I’m not terribly interested in electronic music, but why not give it a try …

… and, I had a blast.  Sam proved to be an excellent and knowledgeable instructor with a clever and fascinating ideas.  In the morning, he walked us through making speakers from bits of wire, paper, glue, and magnets – a great project for building hands-on skills and showing how it’s possible to build your own technology with a tiny bit of knowledge.  Most of us just buy completed speakers or headphone and treat them as black-boxes, never to be disassembled or questioned.  Sam showed us that speakers are simple technology well within the grasp of anybody.  In the afternoon, we built the “electric synth.”  The exercise was less about the music than about creative use of conductive inks to draw circuits and embed microcontrollers.  I “colored outside the lines” and made my synth into a pyramid with the speaker on a paper spring.  This construction technique, while imperfect since the inks tend to be difficult to place precisely and can be brittle, is powerfully simple.  Anybody who can draw a line can build a circuit and harness technology in interesting, interactive, artistic ways.

Thanks to Sam Jacoby and the SparkFun staff for a good day.

Alan Kay on modern computers

David Greelish recently posted an interesting interview with Alan Kay, a visionary behind the modern graphical user interface.  Interestingly, Kay argues that modern computers fall far short of the original vision and potential.

For all media, the original intent was “symmetric authoring and consuming”.

So much of our culture is about consumption.  In some ways, the Apple II was more inline with Kay’s vision.  At least with the Apple II, the machine was open and programmable out of the box.  With an iPad, Apple might grant you the privilege of creating content (“apps”) if you ask nicely and pay.  Related, Kay is talking about sharing and growing substantive ideas.  Pick your favorite social media site – on one hand, these sites make it easy to contribute and even easier to consume.  On the other hand, there’s very little substance to the content.  The “ideas” that Kay discusses are painfully absent from the latest cat photo.

“Science requires a society because even people who are trying to be good thinkers love their own thoughts and theories — much of the debugging has to be done by others.”

There’s a growing “maker” culture where these ideas appear to be growing.  Increasingly, people want to “make it themselves” and share rather than merely consume.  Mainstream products like the iPad haven’t, in my opinion, caught on to this yet, but there’s potential.  It will be interesting to see what happens; the “maker” ideas potentially have a huge impact on culture, education, and economy.